On Valentine's Day, a majority of North Bay City Council decided it was time to take the next step in its relationship with the proposed $51.6-million community and recreation centre.
Befitting the occasion, many spoke passionately in council chambers both for and against what has evolved into one of the City of North Bay's most contentious projects.
A council divided on what has been a complex issue for much of the 2010s and into the 2020s, voted 6-5 in favour of the staff recommendation to move the community and recreation centre with twin ice surfaces — to be located at the Steve Omischl Sports Complex — to tender while stressing that the resulting financial implications of that move will ultimately decide whether or not to build.
Coun. Justine Mallah, the chair of council's community services committee that oversees the file spoke in favour. "The taxpayers of North Bay do not need or want to foot the bill of a community centre. Moving this project forward instead of scrapping the current plans will give staff and council more time to focus on issues, in my opinion, that really matter, like the societal issues that are most pressing and that most people we spoke with during the election wanted to talk about and solve.
"It's time to initiate the tender process. Only then will we have the most updated costs and be able to make the most informed decision. As we have already discussed, we can turn away if the numbers come back massively higher than expected. We won't know until we go there."
Construction companies on the project's pre-qualified shortlist will soon have the opportunity to bid on the project, a process that should take a couple of months and could lead to shovels in the ground at the south-end sports complex this year.
Councillors Maggie Horsfield, Lana Mitchell, Mallah, Chris Mayne, Tanya Vrebosch and Mac Bain voted in favour of the controversial development that now has the fingerprints of four separate councils on it.
This majority of council members indicated their support hinged on avoiding further delays and the fear of missing out on the $25.77-million Green and Inclusive Community Buildings (GICB) funding from the federal government. The federal grant money is available until March 31, 2026, but it is a finite funding envelope that depletes as applications are approved.
"A $52-million community and recreation centre for $26 million is in the best interests of our community," said Mallah.
For more on project costs: New arena decision heading for overtime
The council that served during former mayor Al McDonald's third and final term of office was prepared to go to tender with an estimated cost of $40 million and no additional funding as far back as 2021. The goal was to tender the project before the expiry of the council term in 2022 but the unexpected GICB funding announcement from MP Anthony Rota and the shift to a net zero build changed that plan.
The user groups and the local tourism sector came out as the big winners on Tuesday. With the arena in West Ferris in its twilight and the two skating surfaces at Pete Palangio Arena reportedly not far behind, proponents of the arena have long backed the plan by highlighting the impending ice deficit and advocating for a more accessible new build that will welcome all.
Mayor Peter Chirico and Councillors Sara Inch, Mark King, Gary Gardiner and Jamie Lowery voted against going to tender. A major election issue, this group was steadfast in finding a cheaper build, with a more functional design, at a better location but despite good intentions and an honest effort, no solid, viable alternative to the proposal ever made its way to a public meeting.
Chirico weighed in as the vote neared. "I have never been a supporter of the location. I never will be. Affordability — I get that 50 per cent of this project could be, possibly, funded by the federal government. That still leaves $26 million that the taxpayer is going to be on the hook for as $16.7 million is going to come out of reserves and $9.1 million is going to be debt that we're going to have to live with.
"I'm not in support of it at this point in time. I don't think we can afford to go ahead with it," even with the federal dollars. "Do we need it? Nobody's saying that we don't. Is it the right location? Is it the right design? I'm not sure."
In the committee portion of the meeting, Gardiner asked interim CAO John Severino how solid the construction cost estimate of $43.5 million from November 2022 is and whether the volatile construction market would affect that number in the tender process.
Severino said the estimate was prepared with a variance of plus or minus five per cent by consultants "and it is based on the best available information for local construction, their modelling with all the information they have for similar types of construction. I would not hazard to guess as to what the market will do. I think the best we can do is have the actual cost and come back to council."
If the tender "comes back higher, how much higher are we willing to go, how much higher can we go?" Gardiner asked.
"We have a 6.9 per cent construction contingency," responded Severino. "As we would with any other tender that came in higher, we would go through the project with the low bid and we would see if there were opportunities to reduce costs, we would work with the project team, not just staff but the designers to ensure that we had everything covered or there weren't things that we could remove. At that point, we would come to council with a recommendation to identify where we could have additional dollars should that project come back from tender higher than the amount we have in that envelope."
King inquired about the situation of the building and the blasting planned for the Omischl site and Nathan Jensen spoke on behalf of the design team of Mitchell Jensen and MJMA.
Stakeholders sought "community space and public space on the ground floor," where the indoor change rooms would be in closer proximity to the outdoor playing fields, explained Jensen. "So, in our design response, you see that community space as close to the middle of the site as possible. The building can better interact with the field use and not just be an arena, off at the corner of the site."
Jensen noted the building's situation was also influenced by rock bluffs as tall as eight metres in the area that would "be expensive to blast," and the identification of nearby species at risk. "It was clear there was concern about species at risk in the existing forest area and our design response, working very closely with the environmental consultant and the Ministry of Environment, was able to avoid any impact to the species of risk and a very lengthy and complicated process to achieve a permit to build at that location."
Inch asked what the ramifications would be of starting the project over.
"The city and our design team have built up knowledge at this point if it was council's will to redesign the project but at the same site," offered Jensen. "If you were to reopen the site selection process, you are really opening up a can of worms and you're going back to the start."
The matter moved to the council level during which King again relayed his disdain for the project and its design followed by a quick response from Horsfield. See more of the discussion in the video below:
Mallah, as committee chair, got the last word. "If we decide to scrap the federal funding, we may not get it again. Essentially, we would need to fund a two-pad community centre — and hopefully, other components to make it a community centre — for $24 million."